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The pain of pandemic estrangement

Why do we seem to be so eager to return to the past ‘normal’ way of life that has actually brought us to this abnormal present?

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The writer spending his time farming

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There has been so much personal and social estrangement over the past two years as we struggle to live through this pandemic.

The persistent pandemic has catapulted into the open, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic narratives about our individual and collective natures as well as heart-wrenching stories of a human-made tragedy.

We are faced with so many individual and social pathologies: who would have even imagined that the pandemic would lead to an increase in domestic violence? None of us was really prepared for it. We continue to struggle in different ways, only hoping for the best.

Troubling emotions

As I reflect on the contours of my pandemic estrangement, I can sense deeply troubling emotions coming out of knowing the present political convulsions that my country, Malaysia, is going through, amid a raging pandemic. The quest for instant political gratification among individual politicians and their parties, and their gross power struggles during a ‘mismanaged’ pandemic reveal the level of our political maturity. 

I have been a Malaysian citizen for the last 60-odd years. For the last three years I have been in India: a local university had invited and given me the opportunity to nurture a new field of studies on “new humanities and compassion”.

Unfortunately, that opportunity was not available in Malaysia despite my writing to many in the academic world, including close friends. With education having become big business, compassion is certainly not marketable. Corporate entities love to talk about it though. Sadly, they think their CSR (corporate social responsibility) charity efforts define empathetic compassion in society. It certainly does not: it is a poor measure and a gross misunderstanding of what compassion is all about.

In 2018, I moved to India to work, and when my contract ended in early 2021 with the unfortunate departure of the vice-chancellor who recruited me, I found myself amid a raging pandemic (on the way to becoming an endemic). With this global pandemic that recognises neither borders nor nations, returning ‘home’ was not an option.

All human beings may be infected anywhere on Mother Earth. The pandemic has once again shown us the uselessness of the idea of nation-states. It has shown that many of the challenges confronting humanity today, including the distribution of Covid vaccines, call for us to think of ourselves as one species. It is the call of the Tamil ancestors: “Yaadhum oore, yaavarum kelir” (all towns are our own, everyone is our kin).

My loved ones in Malaysia suggested I stay on in India and wait for a safer time to return. Just when might that be? Making sense of the situation has become a personal challenge. All I can do is pray for the wellbeing of all ordinary people facing the pandemic with little social support even though the world really has enough resources and wealth to feed and care for everyone.  

Blind, unrestrained growth

Many years ago, as an executive director of a listed organisation in Malaysia, I managed the Sars health crisis by keeping my staff and colleagues safe with all the needed safety precautions. But this Covid version is significantly different. With lockdowns, isolation, physical distancing, online work and increased screen time, living with this new pandemic has been a long struggle.

Learning to live with it has been exacting, given the way we have developed our social worlds, structured our built environments or paid scant critical attention to our general health. In most global and national budgets, the budget for health is much less than the allocation for the military. I really do not understand this global stupidity.

We have lived – and will continue to live – in a broken world until these mainstream economists, technocrats, bureaucrats and politicians stop being privileged and stop abusing power to rule us any way they want.

We should pull up the mainstream universities and industries for propagating and perpetuating these dominant narratives that impede the world population from living simple, safe, peaceful and fulfilled lives.

Our global development model is based on blind and unrestrained growth to fuel the dream of endless consumption, uncontrolled material affluence and self-indulgent, hedonistic conveniences. This has resulted in the degradation of the delicately inter-connected biosphere, much of which is pristine forest. It has also carelessly introduced all kinds of harmful toxins into the environment and into our bodies. This has not only broken the world but has also continuously compromised our immunity and weakened us.

Sadly, the system needs damaged and immunocompromised bodies for the medico-pharmaceutical industry to thrive. In a strange sense, healthy people – like healthy peace – are a liability in today’s world.

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Notwithstanding some caring physicians, the song of the medico-pharmaceutical industry “we save lives” is really about those damaged by the system in so many avoidable ways – the same system that props up the industry.

Connecting the hidden dots in the system and correcting them requires a drastic and comprehensive lifestyle change. Those in power, with the material and symbolic power they wield, will resist and not allow it to happen. Those who propose that or live their lives by those alternative values and practices are marginalised, even demonised. Their ways cannot or will not be mainstreamed. How do you fight a monster which assumes that its blindness is 20-20 clear sight? 

‘New ab-normality’

The pandemic has locked me in India. My annual trips back to Malaysia and other places for professional work, to meet family, friends and co-researchers have been virtually suspended. We Zoom these days to deal with our estrangement. Both Malaysia and India are not doing too well with Covid infections still high. And both have closed their borders or have imposed heavy restrictions on cross-border movements. The experience of going to the airport is beginning to feel like a trip to the hospital!

In loneliness, I face the new ‘ab-normality’. I am bewildered when  educated, socially active people call it the “new normal”. They are so detached from ground realities they have accepted such abnormalities as normalities. Many don’t seem to realise we have been living a life of ‘comfortable estrangement’ and believing that as normalcy!

Even before we had this tiny virus teaching us tough lessons, we lived in a world which was essentially Abnormal – and carelessly called it normal. Now, we have added more abnormalities, and we call the situation the ‘new normal’, like a proud innovator! We even have meaningless campaigns to welcome the new normal. Stupidity has been a pandemic for a long time and to which we are certainly not paying sufficient attention.

I miss the loving encounters with my sister. I miss my close friends and relatives. I have not met my new relative – a great grandniece – who was born during the pandemic.

My god-grandchildren – Hadiya, Safiya and Afiya – live in Austria. I used to meet them every year when they come home to Mysore during the annual summer vacation in Europe. But now for over two years I have not been able to do that. I miss holding them or having a conversation with them or going out for walks in parks with them or just the pleasure of seeing and hearing their joyous screams as they play in the children’s park.

I do meet them virtually but it is such a ‘meaningless normality’ today. In my world today, there are no more sounds from children’s parks nor do I see them in urban (or even rural) public spaces. The silencing of the screams of noisy children is so loudly pathological. It is a sickness of the times. How did we come to this – living in a world where we do not encounter the carefree spirit of children?

Uncertainty

Personally, the most difficult part of the pandemic is to live with the uncertainty of when all this will really go away and when we will return to whatever routines we were used to in the pre-pandemic times. The constant alert to possible new waves of the pandemic spreading with more infectious mutations of the Covid virus has framed a life of distressful and unnerving uncertainty, like standing on a shifting and unstable foundation.

And with this acute uncertainty, now and then, I face a certain resistance to continue serious work as the question hangs before me: what if I am infected and succumb to it? What is the point of it all? This helplessness or hopelessness really affects serious mental work now and then. You just sit listlessly facing an empty wall of nothingness … socially and spiritually empty, as if slowly dying.

The reality of uncertainty has become a fertile substrate, which dampens, decays or kills any drive one may have. Despite this, we continue to work helplessly, hoping for the best and trusting that our health will hold up. I rely on traditional health practices and the wisdom of Ayurveda, avoiding allopathic medication to the extent possible. My friend and fictive niece, heavy into Ayurveda healing wisdom and natural and traditional practices, ensures that I follow a strict routine to maintain my base health in top form with a proper diet based on local foods, and an active body culture with nourishing poly-herbal preparations.

The phone has become a necessary communication tool for sharing sound advice on non-medicalised healing, strengthening the ordinary natural routines to healthy living. In many places, we have lost the benefits of the local wisdom of our ancestors – on physical healing, healing the biosphere and what one needs for healthy living and healing our souls.

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Reactionary, authoritarian responses

In this, it is important to remember that Mother Earth does not need our saving or healing efforts. We are fatally wrong if we think that. It is also laughable. We are the ones who actually need saving – from our own arrogant selves and blatant stupidity.

Socially, culturally, politically, the impact of the pandemic has given birth to or set the stage for a variety of difficult and troubling intermingling realities – ‘prophetic anger’ at the situation which has adversely affected so many poor people, helpless migrants and homeless refugees. Think also of the many unnecessary deaths due to an unprepared government or an overstrained health system.

Then there are the reactionary and aggressive religious responses and the bloody victimisation of ethno-religious minorities. Consider too the revival or promotion of dangerous superstitions in the name of spirituality. Witness the heart-breaking episodes of human helplessness, grief, suffering and deaths, faced with a certain numbness.

How do we cope with the inability to even grieve the deaths of our near and dear ones, when avoidable deaths visit us in such quick succession? Knowing or watching people who are allowed to die is numbing; others run around to bury or cremate the dead – it is a terrifying upfront view of the darker recesses of human nature that feeds on profit and cruelty, like the vultures we see feeding on dead carcasses.

We have so many troubling unanswered questions about the political economy of the pandemic or the many layers of secrecy surrounding it. Observe the vaccination diplomacy and the question of who will live and who will die. Ponder over the planned use of the pandemic situation for grabbing political power, including the systemic push to install the infrastructure for fascist or totalitarian rule.

Of course, we occasionally witness heartwarming acts of empathy, compassion and human kindness. Much needed.

We also see the sad episodes: the deaths of people – including many frontline workers – involved in these efforts. I have deep gratitude to all the simple folks and professionals who have faced death and succumbed to the infection – Good Samaritans, non-medical staff, nurses, doctors and police personnel. Many of us have done our bit, at least sharing some resources with whatever and whomever we can.

But to a good extent, truth seems to have been a casualty in the pandemic. So too, democracy. The pandemic has also provided authoritarianism and fascist tendencies a nourishing opportunity to grow and hurt people who are fighting for a better, safer, more just and healthier world. Innocence has been lost again.

As an ageing human being, I fear for many children with whom my life has been intertwined. I fear for their health. I fear for their political wellbeing. I fear for their innocence.

I have never seen or experienced the level to which the mainstream media have let down the ordinary folks in the defence against undemocratic power as I have seen during the pandemic in many places in the world. The mainstream media’s weaponisation of narratives has produced new pathologies and has made the world that much sicker and unsafe.

It is the safety of children and their innocence that affects me the most. How do we genuinely face them or morally answer their innocent questions on why we adults – technocrats, bureaucrats, economists, politicians, academics, managers and leaders – have created such a broken, dangerous world with no guarantee against more disasters and future pandemics.

With all these empty claims of sophistication or of being advanced, have we not created a precarious future for them? It is unforgivable and unconscionable. We ought to be deeply ashamed. 

Affluence as a social ailment 

We are living through tough times. It is understandable we want to get back to our ‘used-to-normality’, no matter how abnormal it was. Given the kind of actions I read, see and hear, the pandemic has not taught the leaders, managers and technocrats who run the world much. This for me is exasperating and sad. We are so eager to return to the past ‘normal’ way of life that has actually brought us to this abnormal present. A powerful section of humanity wants that status quo no matter what.

We have enough global and local billionaires to redistribute their wealth to support thousands of the global poor (including children) the world over – who, in reality, helped these billionaires, directly or indirectly, make that kind of wealth and who would otherwise continue to suffer the effects of the pandemic. Actually, the global poor will continue to suffer even if there was no pandemic, because of the way the world is made. This is a world that mindlessly privileges and promotes affluence and that only studies poverty as some kind of social ailment. We are really faced with many kinds of pandemics that we do not want to talk about.

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It is high time we critically studied affluence as a social ailment. Let’s examines those “rags to riches” stories – you know, the social models our young are continually bombarded with and asked to follow – and their deleterious impact on individuals, societies and nature.

We also have a completely useless but dangerous institutional complex militating against building a compassionate common future. The war and surveillance industry guzzles up human, material and financial resources. Haven’t we learned enough lessons from the mindless wars we have had in modern times or from the work of people like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden? If only we systematically and democratically redirect and redistribute all these resources and wealth, we could have a just, safer and healthier world. I wonder what is holding us up. Really. Certainly, it is not human kindness, which is usually paraded for PR purposes.

The state of the world faced with this or that problem, with this or that pandemic, seems to have given rise to a new breed of ‘solutioneers’ whose job is to just blindly provide solution after solution without vertically or horizontally understanding contexts or causes. These are experts offering pure symptomatic treatments of social illnesses. They are like those pathetic doctors who would straightaway administer steroids to get quick results.

It fact, solutioneers are a new breed in an unsustainable, complicated global occupational edifice that has been largely nurtured for years by global industries – including the most polluting one. They are also nurtured by mainstream universities that supply them trained human resources, all trained in creating a broken world in the name of “growing the economy”.

We multiply and sell ever-expanding structured knowledge packages at various levels of certification so that we can sell education with a five-figure-pay dream. Never mind what happens to nature and the future we are pushing our children into. We are living through the damage we have brought upon ourselves. The most tragic aspect of this situation is the heartlessness that draws attention to this damage and then offers it to potential commercial ventures seeking lucrative profits. If it sells, we will make money even from a rotting part of ourselves! 

Feeling lost, yet hopeful

Amid this pandemic, I am feeling a little lost. I am surely stateless and homeless too. And, sort of jobless (though I have a lot of work to do). I am physically, socially and spiritually stressed, too.

But for my dear friends, close family members, a fictive niece and a caring bishop, this would have been a difficult phase of my life. Little did I expect to run into a raging pandemic at this age of about 70.

Three years on, and I have almost exhausted all my internal and external resources. But the pandemic, and the virus that caused it, has offered me a unique view of life and the world I have lived in and try to make deep sense of. In hindsight, I surely ‘see’ things with more clarity.

The pandemic has also brought some young people into my life, at least virtually. I am extremely thankful to some of my students and young friends who have kept me involved by giving me meaningful opportunities to share an active life – at least 40 years of social involvement – that has covered contradictions, failures, letdowns and ‘letting downs’, achievements, heartbreaks, happiness, pain and suffering.

I hope I had something to share that would shape or influence their lives. I once named my god-grandchildren – Safiya, Afiya and Hadiya, whom I adore – as the three sisters we all need: Love, Faith and Hope. I now live with a staple diet of Hope that Love and Faith will have to show us our futures together.  

Dr M Nadarajah (Nat), a freelance sociologist, works on cultural, sustainability and engaged spirituality issues. He is an Asian Public Intellectual fellow and has been associated with the Sejahtera Leadership Initiative, Malaysia, the Indian Social Institute and the Asian School of Wisdom, Thailand, which is exploring the possibility of nurturing wisdom-based futures

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